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A new survey finds plastic pollution in every Pennsylvania waterway that was tested across the state. The nonprofit PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center tested 53 sites, including Lake Erie, many small creeks, and rivers from the Allegheny in the west to the Delaware in the east.

Trash like plastic bags and bottles break down over time into tiny pieces called microplastics, which were the focus of the research.

According to Faran Savitz, PennEnvironment conservation associate, they tested for four types of microplastics, including film from plastic bags, fragments from waste like food packaging, and fibers from textiles.

“Microplastic fibers from things like synthetic clothing, textiles, or fishing wire, were found in 100% of the waterways we sampled, that means every river, lake, and stream,” said Savitz.

PennEnvironment collected water samples for its study from January 2020 through June 2020, using methodology developed by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  

They found very little of the other type of plastic pollution known as microbeads, found in facial scrubs and other cosmetics. In 2015, Congress passed a law prohibiting the manufacture, packaging, and distribution of cosmetics containing microbeads.

Map by PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

Savitz didn’t expect PennEnvironment to find so much of the three types of microplastic pollution. “The results of this study should set off alarms. The staggering amount of microplastics we found likely means that no river, lake, or stream is safe from this increasingly common contaminant,” Savitz said.

The group has a set of policy recommendations, including calling on Congress to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, and the state legislature to pass a bill called ZeroWaste for PA to reduce plastic waste. Currently, Pennsylvania state law doesn’t allow local governments to ban plastic bags.

Plastics Industry Responds

Policy prescriptions to phase out single-use plastics don’t sit well with Brendan Thomas, spokesperson for the Plastics Industry Association. “When it comes to banning products and materials people need to be healthy, we can’t agree with that,” Thomas said, speaking about its many uses in health care, and the ability of plastic to keep food fresh.

He notes that plastic prevents food waste, which is a significant source of methane and contributes to climate change. 

But Thomas recognizes there’s work to be done to make plastic more sustainable. “We need to find ways to continue to use this extremely useful material without wasting its end of life,” he said. He admits that improvements to recycling are needed. According to the U.S. EPA, in 2018, 35.7 million tons of plastics were generated in the U.S., and only 8.7% of that was recycled.

Human Impacts Not Yet Known

Meanwhile, research shows that people ingest about 2,000 pieces of microplastic a week, through breathing, eating or drinking, an amount equal to the weight of one credit card. 

Drexel University’s David Velinsky, who worked as a technical consultant on the PennEnvironment study, said it’s not yet known the impact this microplastic has on human health.

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